Human Rights

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Questions of Legitimacy

The answer to the question of whether covert operations are ethical or legitimate also has produced considerable controversy. One commentator writes:
Let us remind ourselves that clandestine acts need not be beastly. Indeed, many forms of "covert operations" are nonviolent and as routine--and as benign--as providing advice and funds to politicians, labor leaders and editors who oppose foreign take- overs in their own countries.[7]

Another observer notes that covert action is an ugly word in the lexicon of many observers schooled in democratic political traditions. Many Westerners have written in terms of bemused horror and morbid fascination about the spectacular expansion of both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, in which covert political warfare is alleged to have played an important role.[8]

If one is given such widely varying assessments of covert operations, what is one to believe? If one applies a simple, generic definition, that is, an attempt by a government to influence events in another state or territory without revealing its involvements, one sees that seeking to influence the politics of other governments and societies is an inherent element of foreign policy. Moreover, governments usually do not reveal exactly what they seek to accomplish or how they intend to do it. They are to one degree or another secretive or covert. Thus, to some extent, all nations engage in covert actions. Indeed, aside from reasons of ideology, covert actions as a form of intervention have expanded as the growth of trade, the ease and speed of travel, and the technological advances in communications have made it easier for officials of one nation to affect the political climate in other nations.

An especially important reason that covert action will always be considered, if not actually used, is that it is seen as a middle option, or, as Theodore Shackley, a retired intelligence officer, phrases it, "the third option to the persuasions of diplomacy and trade on the one hand and military force on the other."[9] Such is especially attractive to heads of state, who are always afraid of appearing to be either indecisive or foolhardy, either wimps or warmongers. In this third-option perspective, one academic writes that covert action is primarily the manifestation of an output of the national security policy process. Unlike foreign intelligence, which provides input to the intelligence production process, covert action attempts to implement the policy decisions. Not every policy decision involves the use of covert actions, but covert action offers a number of diverse options for policymakers and the expectation that the action will remain covert has resulted in its use by all administrations since the inception of the CIA in 1947.[10]